Three Cheers for Terror! or ‘The Forces of Moderation’


/1/ – Categorical terrorism

Strict divides

[EDIT:Žižek put out an article today called “On 9/11, New Yorkers faced the fire in the minds of men” which is limited but interesting.]

In earlier discussions I’ve brought up the fact that is seemingly impossible to, at least in this time and place, remove the venomous rhetorical weight from the word terrorist or from terror, but it seems like an important distinction to make. Two terms of contention here are innocent (civilians) and (enemy) combatant. A series of debates explodes from the ambiguity of these terms bearing epistemological and ontological weight.

The question of innocence, particularly when speaking of something like the 9/11 attacks, is an epistemological question isn’t it. There is, of course, the notion of ‘chickens come home to roost’ that concept that got the ‘dubious’ Ward Churchhill in trouble. The problem with the issue of epistemology here is that on one level, yes one could as Churchill does, accuse the victims of the attack as ‘little Eichmans’ in that no one should be surprised that something like that could happen. [However, this knowledge does not change the fact that what happened was mass murder]

But it is telling that the TV anchor question ‘how could this happen?’ was, and has been, directed at the failure of intelligence etc and not the question of why. But on the other hand, I think there is this dominant (false) assumption on the left that a certain kind of historico-political knowledge would somehow emancipate us from the clutches of neo-con thugs. As Chantal Mouffe points out Habermas, Ulrich Beck/Anthony Giddens (advocates of a second modernity/reflexive modernity) and even figures like Noam Chomsky seem to think that a emancipatory knowledge could actually change the situation.

Shifting towards the ontological, one major issue is that of tactics and strategies. One is not allowed to be surprised at the fact that a group facing assault from an entity with a vast technological network/war machine is going to act in such a way to sidestep these advantages completely through guerilla warfare and the like. But of course the popular indictment is that of cowardice against them as if they could and should meet us on the open field of battle or what have you.

This doesn’t endorse certain terroristic attacks as it is not an open license on murder but the dangerous connection is made ideologically that indirect tactics are somehow inherently evil/dishonorable etc.

This is evident in several of the reviews of the film V for Vendetta in which the film was accused of glorifying terrorism. How are V’s actions terroristic? He is destroying symbolic targets – emptied of people – in order to strike against a government that is verifiably guilty of the murder of millions of people? There is a fantasmatic terroristic form that has become increasingly dismissive of its content. Do they Maquis who attacked Nazi supply trains become terrorists then as well because they fit the form?

Some valiant Maquis

/2/ – A ticking in the body

The second point of contention (combatant) brings up the subject of bodies. It’s been discussed ad nauseum from Foucault to Scarry to Agamben. This is not a simple problem of categorization, but, more importantly, as Agamben argues, a move of exception, is one of soverignty that denies the basic human status of certain people. As some defenders of Guantanamo have argued that those labeled terrorists don’t deserve the protections of the Geneva convention because they are not members of sovereign nations but of groups. Here again is the problem of form – can we actually argue that, because these people do not officially belong to a nation that their ‘bare life’ the very status of being-in-the-world, their simple existence, can simply be ignored? Anyone living along the border know this is everyday. Particularly in the case of the group No More Deaths (though the charges against them were recently dropped) who were arrested because they wanted to stop illegal immigrants from dying in the dessert. Legality trumps life.

Almost as alarming, maybe more alarming(?), is the consensus that ‘now we live in a different world’ and ‘special measures need to be taken.’ In this sense the idea of exception is diffused (ideologically) and spread throughout government/culture in the kind of ‘state of emergency’ thinking.

A prime example of this is the ‘ticking bomb scenario.’ The argument has been stated that if there was someone who knew where a bomb was that was going to kill thousands of people then we should allow torture of that individual. Žižek counters this argument well in Welcome to the Dessert of the Real stating that we should not, in a pseudo-kantian way make this desire into a maxim because of a certain extreme possibility we should rework the limits of the system to allow for this extreme. The reason is that if such a situation came upon us chances are the person would be tortured regardless of the legality. Making such torture legal or otherwise systemically feasible only widens the possibility for torture in other less ‘extreme’ situations.

Our Favorite Torturer

To speak of ticking clocks we must bring up the ever popular and award winning drama 24. As Žižek writes in his article “The Depraved Heroes of 24 Are the Himmlers of Hollywood”:

“The same goes for the US’ recent admission that it is using torture. When we hear people such as Dick Cheney making statements about the necessity of torture, we should ask ourselves why he has decided to make a public statement about it. The question to be raised is: what is there in this statement that made the speaker decide to enunciate it? This is 24’s real problem: not the content itself but the fact that we are being told openly about it. And that is a sad indication of a deep change in our ethical and political standards.”

This sense of failing standards is blanketed in a sense of urgency, represented perfectly in the sense of 24‘s ‘real time’, that of the time that appears on the screen leading to multitudes of pseudo-apocalyptic climaxes and such and such. Yet, why is the show so vigorously entertaining, why have those who purportedly detest Bush administration torture etc. love the show? The relentlessly clever Sarah Vowell sums it up perfectly in “Down With Torture! Gimme Torture!”:

“…mostly, Americans reject torture because we are not satanic monster scum. Except, of course, the moment we pick up our TV remote controls. That’s when even my inner civics robot cracks open a ginger ale, stares at Kiefer Sutherland on the beloved “24” and cheers: “Yeah, Jack Bauer! Break into that interrogation room and shoot that suspect in the leg!” There is a jarring disconnect between what I want my real-life intelligence officers to be doing versus what I want my fake TV intelligence officers to be doing.”

Sarah, the Witticist

She ends by saying:

“Sitting on my couch, under the watchful stare of no fewer than six busts of Lincoln, while wearing a sweatshirt given to volunteers at a children’s tutoring center, as Bauer’s knife was poised to break the man’s skin, what I was thinking was: Do it. Because, if you ask me, there aren’t enough detached eyeballs in prime time.

I did feel a little less guilty about the contradiction of using the same credit card to give money to Amnesty International and to buy the DVD’s of “24” when I heard that Senator John McCain is such a fan of the show he will be making a cameo in tomorrow’s episode. Even the man who once suffered in North Vietnamese captivity, who sponsored an antitorture amendment, is bully for potential eye stabbings on TV. On TV being the point. Unconstitutional fantasies are normal (I hope), and on TV dramas they can be entertaining and cathartic. Let’s just keep them off the TV news.”

/3/ -The (un)Secret Lives of the Un(dead)

This brings us to our ontological point mentioned earlier, that of combatants. The aforementioned Giorgio Agamben sets out, in much of his work, to complete/correct Foucault’s notion of biopower. Most notably Agamben takes issue with the fact that Foucault believes that there has been a shift away from soveriegnty. Agamben points that that the sovereign, as that who decides exception, is more alive than ever in today’s politics of shadowy camps and special statuses. What also becomes of utmost importance in this discussion is that of Lacan’s concept of the two deaths – symbolic death and ‘actual’ biological death and the space between them. More from Žižek:

“In a recent NBC debate about the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, one of the arguments used in ethico-legal justification of their status was that ‘they are those who were missed by the bombs.’ Since they were the target of legitimate US bombings in Afghanistan and accidentally survived, no one can complain about what happens to them afterwards as prisoners: whatever their situation, it is better than being dead. Such reasoning puts the prisoners in the position of the living dead. Their right to life is forfeited by their having been the legitimate targets of murderous bombings, so that they are now examples of what Giorgio Agamben calls homo sacer, the one who can be killed with impunity since, in the eyes of the law, his life no longer counts.”

Žižek ends his article with the following statement:

“Who can forget the Department of Defense news briefing in February 2003, when Donald Rumsfeld pondered the relationship between the known and the unknown: ‘There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.’ What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the ‘unknown knowns’, things we don’t know that we know, which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the ‘knowledge which doesn’t know itself’, as Lacan used to say.” (from “Between Two Deaths: The Culture of Torture”

This is one reason why 24 could make us feel uneasy. While there is the possible cathartic release that Vowell suggests there is also the danger of it functioning as a kind of public disavowal. Also what about the recognition of such public display? Who could not laugh when this past week the UN declared immediate investigation of ‘secret prisons’ only after Bush publicly announced it? The act suggested as if they ‘did not know’ such prisons existed.

/4/ – The ‘Good Terror’

The ‘Good terror’ is a concept I have mentioned before, and it seems to be a shared one between Žižek and Badiou. For Žižek, it involves his joking, but somewhat serious, affirmation that totalitarianism is the perfect form of government and for Badiou it is (brought up in private conversation according to Žižek) probably best related to his concept of forcing. This concept (though in strictly mathematical form) is in turn borrowed from the American mathematician Paul Joeseph Cohen.

For Badiou the concept of forcing has to do with his concept event, particularly the site of the event, the place at the edge of the void. Bruno Bosteels argues that the two concepts of site and forcing are what are commonly ignored by Badiou’s critiques and both of these terms draw Badiou out of the shadow of Lacan (Lacan: The Silent Partners, p.159). For Badiou, an event (‘something happens’ that disrupts the functioning of the state of the situation, the status quo) is followed by a vigorous fidelity to the trace of such an event, of the event’s consequences. While this is the structural formula of Badiou’s politics it does not speak to the complications of site and forcing – the topological parts of the formula.
“An event is not pure novelty and insurrection, but is tributary to a situation by virtue of its specific site” (Ibid. p. 160). Bosteels argues that it is not enough to recognize a breakdown in the normal functioning of things that the specificity of the place the breakdown occurs (the site) must be named and then forced upon the situation.

May ’68, An evental insurrection?

What does this mean? To think of the edge of the void is to think of a place of non-place, a factory that utilizes undocumented workers for instance. Forcing is when one makes a statement about the site, about its connection to a generic truth. All workers deserve certain basic rights for instance can be drawn from seemingly non-existant workers statuses. The gamble, the function of chance comes in because whether or not that statement ‘all workers deserve X” can be connected to an indiscernible truth can never be known (Being and Event, p. 401).

In “Badiou: Notes From an Ongoing Debate” Žižek argues that what is needed to today is a sense of ‘good terror’ combined with a kind of egalitarian faith in the people. In the context of the ‘ecological crisis’ he states the following formula:

“What is demanded is:

strict egalitarian justice (all people should pay the same price in eventual renunciations, i.e., one should impose the same world-wide norms of per capita energy consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, etc.; the developed nations should not be allowed to poison the environment at the present rate, blaming the developing Third World countries, from Brasil to China, for ruining our shared environment with their rapid development)

terror (ruthless punishment of all who violate the imposed protective measures, inclusive of severe limitations of liberal “freedoms,” technological control of the prospective law-breakers)

voluntarism (the only way to confront the threat of the ecological catastrophe is by means of large-scale collective decisions which will run counter to the “spontaneous” immanent logic of capitalist development – it is not the question of helping the historical tendency or necessity to realize itself, but to “stop the train” of history which runs towards the precipice of global catastrophe

and, last but not least, all this combined with the:

trust in the people (the wager that the large majority of the people support these severe measures, see them as their own, and are ready to participate in their enforcement).”

Badiou begins a series of lectures on American imperialism by quoting the poet Mallarmé – “The present is lacking.” On the one hand, as he himself goes on later to discuss, the present is lacking in the time of war because war decides politics of the time. At the same that which should decide politics during war is that which war disavows or allows to exist in a place of non-existence.

As Badiou writes “capitalist nihilism has arrived at a stage of the non-existence of any world. Yes, today there is no world, there is nothing but a group of singular disconnected situations. There is no world simply because the majority of the planet’s inhabitants today do not even receive the gift of a name, of a simple name” (Infinite Thought, p. 161-162),

Ultimately the concept of terror is a poisonous one (and virtue is lost alongside it) as long as we live in a non-world where we are all either ‘anonymous or excluded.’

EDIT:This is why there is a kind of perverse truth in a phrase Bush used tonight. Along with his usual cache of descriptors for the ‘good guys’ (Forces of Freedom, West, Free world etc.) Bush utilized one I had never heard before – the ‘forces of moderation.’


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